Starting School Gardens
What do famed chef, Alice Waters, celebrated anthropologist Jane Goodall, and actress Meryl Streep have in common? All support school gardening initiatives that not only teach children how to grow food but serve as outdoor learning centers and launch pads for lessons in everything from math to creative writing. From the Julien Elementary School Garden in Turlock, California, to Matty’s Garden at the Matthew Whaley Elementary School in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Edible Schoolyard movement is spreading like summer crabgrass. School gardens of every size, shape, and composition are springing up in urban, suburban, and rural school districts all over the country.
Celebrity endorsers and patrons are nice but not necessary to start a successful school gardening program. The critical components are adult vision, student involvement, and the ability to muster enough resources to establish and sustain the garden. If you think you can combine those elements, you are ready to get started.
It Takes a Village
School gardens often start with a single person: a parent, teacher or administrator with a passion for gardening. But, no one—especially not a successful school garden organizer—gardens alone. Start by engaging others, including school personnel, parents, and students. Work on refining the garden idea. Listen to everyone. Define the purpose of the garden and what kinds of crops you want to grow.
Successful school gardens often combine food and ornamental crops, with the ornamentals providing visual appeal and attracting essential pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. (Click here to learn how to create a butterfly garden.) Use some of the many online school gardening resources to help in the planning process.
Choosing a Site
Gardeners and gardening educators know that location is everything. Pick a sunny space on school property and make sure that space is reasonably close to a reliable water supply. If the soil in the designated spot is extremely compacted or contaminated, amend the soil with a quality amendment, like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. You might also think about using raised beds or containers filled with high-quality planting mix like Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Large, well-watered containers will also work beautifully if the only available site is covered in asphalt.
Plan and Permission
Before seeking approval from school authorities, your team should develop a clear, logical plan that includes as much of the stakeholders’ feedback as possible, plus practical and logistical considerations. The plan should also include a mission statement and information about the garden’s purpose, goals, size, and proposed location. Create estimates of the necessary resources—financial and human—needed for set-up and ongoing operation.
Focus on maintenance, making sure to include provisions for watering and upkeep during periods when school is not in session. (It may help to recruit a team of volunteers to help with upkeep.) Your goals may be lofty, but keep the overall plan simple and present it in a positive way with as many stakeholders present as possible. Be responsive to school authorities’ concerns and be prepared to make plan revisions.
You are going to need funding for garden supplies and seeds or starter plants. Many school gardens start with a contribution from the PTA or other parent organization. Local businesses may also be willing to donate supplies or at least provide discounts. Dedicated, well-publicized fundraisers are another possible funding avenue.
You can also seek out grant opportunities, some of the best being offered by Kids Gardening. This exceptional kids’ gardening program also offers additional educational resources to help educators and parents start school gardens.
With all of these pieces in place, you should be able to start a thriving school gardening program. There’s no better way to help kids learn and get them outdoors.
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